GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- The St. Louis Rams are favored on the road and a threat to win the NFC West. The Arizona Cardinals are in a free-fall with no sign of the bottom.
My, how things have changed since Arizona's 17-13 season-opening victory at St. Louis.
"It seems like three years ago we played that game," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. " ... We certainly are a different team we think, hopefully better."
There's no question about that.
St. Louis enters Sunday's game at 5-6, tied with Seattle atop a division derisively known as the "NFC Worst." The Rams are the only one of the four NFC West teams without a losing record outside the division at 4-4, most recently a 36-33 victory at Denver last weekend, snapping St. Louis' seven-game road losing streak.
St. Louis is a three-point favorite to end an eight-game losing streak against the Cardinals dating to 2006. Arizona (3-8) has lost six straight just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance.
Embattled coach Ken Whisenhunt is trying to stay calm as he watches a program he thought he had built into a winner disintegrate in front of an increasingly hostile fan base that dreads the thought of seeing the franchise go back to its long history of futility.
"It's tough," Whisenhunt said. "As much criticism as there is you don't understand how much you beat yourself up. Listen, we want to win. I like the excitement that we have in our stadium. I like it when the fans are excited about our team and proud of our team and it hurts when we're not performing. Everything is geared to getting that back."
Whisenhunt has emphasized to his players that season-opening game, when the Cardinals had the confidence they seem to sorely lack now.
"It does encourage you that when we do it right, we're not a bad football team," he said.
Arizona's offense, under erratic quarterback Derek Anderson and a ground game that never has found its footing, ranks 31st out of 32 teams. But the Rams have seasoned running back Steven Jackson and impressive rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, who has 11 touchdown passes and one interception in his last six games.
Whisenhunt expects to see a lot of Jackson after San Francisco rolled for 261 yards on the ground last week, despite the loss of Frank Gore to a broken hip early in the game.
The Cardinals confused Bradford in his NFL debut, intercepting him twice.
"It's night and day," Bradford said of his development since then. "I think you could ask any quarterback and they would tell you that going into their 12th game, they were 10 times more comfortable than they were their first game, and that's exactly how I feel. I've had 12, 13 weeks to go through just season mode, understanding what game weeks are going to be. All the repetitions during the week really help me in my understanding for this offense."
Linebacker James Laurinaitis said Bradford's success has been infectious.
"When you have a guy at the helm who is as committed as he is and as competitive as he is, I think it trickles down to the other guys," Laurinaitis said. "You really have a guy who studies his rear end off as far as the film room and prepares extremely well. You can see it at practice. He makes a bad throw, you can kind of see him instantly self-diagnose why he made the mistake and where he should have went with the ball.
"He definitely is the right guy for the job."
Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald needs five catches to break Anquan Boldin's franchise reception record. But Fitzgerald has found life without Kurt Warner difficult to say the least.
"Kurt's a Hall of Famer. There's no ifs ands or buts about it. He was one of the best to ever do it at his position. It's not only going to affect me, it's going to affect everybody. What are we ranked in the NFL right now, 30th, 31st. Last year we were a top 10 offense. That's a significant difference."
Running back Beanie Wells said he feels for Whisenhunt and the criticism that's been aimed at the coach, who before this season was hailed as the man who did what many thought impossible -- turn the Cardinals into a winner.
"Nobody's giving up on our coach," Wells said. "We love coach Wiz and we believe in what he stands for and what he does. We're going to work for this guy. I personally am going to work for him because I like him. He coaches well."
Whisenhunt brushed aside Anderson's post-game tirade after Monday night's listless 27-6 loss to San Francisco, saying only that he wished the quarterback had handled it better. He said the brief video of Anderson and guard Deuce Lutui smiling on the sidelines while the team was being battered was blown far out of proportion.
He is sticking with Anderson, who apologized for his outburst, partly because he really has no choice. Rookie Max Hall struggled mightily in his brief stint and rookie John Skelton simply isn't ready.
The Rams, on the other hand, are entering the sunshine after a dark 1-15 season in Spagnuolo's first year.
"It's a lot of fun," said Jackson, who needs 117 yards for his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. "I was talking to my dad last night, and he said it feels good to play football at this level, having games going into December that really mean something outside of own personal pride. ... The games are going to get bigger as the weeks go on, but first things first. You have to win each game for them to get bigger. I think everyone's looking forward to the challenge. The locker room feels great right now."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)